In 2001 I was living in Los Angeles when a film producer I occasionally worked for called asking for a favor. He was working on a commercial in San Francisco and needed some props driven up from Burbank the following day. He wanted to know if I could do it. He’d pay me mileage, my day rate, per diem and he’d arranged for me to stay the night with a mutual friend.
I had a pretty flexible work schedule that week so I agreed to do it.
The next morning I packed an overnight bag and headed to Aaron’s Records on Highland. The drive from LA to San Francisco was six hours depending on traffic, and I was on hold until the props finished being fabricated. I was going to need some new tunes for the ride and this was the perfect excuse to finally pick up Amnesiac by Radiohead.
I can’t recall what else I picked up. I was listening to a variety of music at the time. Some country rock by the Flying Burrito Brothers, and some Everly Brothers. Possibly Brit Pop by Embrace and some indie-rock by Sloan too. The Kinks and The Stones also often played heavily into my road trips.
What I do know is I filled up my 5 disc carousel and got ready to make the drive.
As it turned out the props weren’t ready until almost 4pm. By the time I loaded them into my car and made sure they were secure, it was almost 5pm. I was about to head into some brutal traffic on my way out of LA.
For the first few hours the drive went without a hitch. It was slow going with all the traffic, but that was the worst of it. Soon however, the sun began to sink and the conditions started to get dicier.
Then it happened. With the sun completely gone I hit a fog bank. Visibility was down to 10 feet, and traffic was stop and go.
It was an intense drive. I’ve never been one to white knuckle drive, but I was this night. It was isolating to have such limited visibility. You might crest a hill and finally see hints of distant red tail lights littering the horizon. And this would be the only sense you had of the course of the road up ahead. If cars were moving. If there was an accident. If there was life on Mars.
But the majority of the time, all you could see was the sudden hazy glow of headlights in the opposite direction, or the brake lights directly in front of you. But other times, you saw neither, but knew inevitably those brake lights would come on, and hopefully you were far enough away and had enough time to stop.
I was cocooned in a surreal limbo, inching along the freeway with limited visibility. This was how I first experienced Amnesiac.
I say ‘experienced’ because I can’t really claim to have listened to it – at least not actively. Before the sun sank below the horizon and the fog rolled in I was likely singing at the top of my lungs and dancing as much as possible while seated and buckled in. But that had all changed by the time Amnesiac came on. Music had been relegated to the background. I was no longer actively listening to it, there were too many other things demanding my attention.
For the next 44 minutes Amnesiac was the soundtrack to this surreal drive. I can’t say I managed to distinguish any of the songs at the time. But because of my surroundings and the type of music that inhabits Amnesiac I had an experience unlike any other while listening to music. I often couldn’t distinguish if a sound effect was a part of the music or something happening outside the car. Was that noise the squeaking of tires? A distant horn? A siren moving in the opposite direction? Or a multi-processed guitar effect? I still don’t really know.
Because I was so focused on the road I forfeited my ability to differentiate between the music and the outside traffic noise, or at some times, the lack thereof. This album lends itself better to such an experience more than a regular pop album with a basic sonic palette of drums, bass, guitar and vocals. Hearing the album for the first time, I didn’t have the knowledge that a sound effect was a part of the song and not a part of my environment. It was kinda like being in my own sensory deprivation tank.
But these weren’t really things I was in any way conscious of while listening to the music. But everything intensified. I sat further forward in my seat, leaning over the steering wheel steering into the oncoming void, unaware of what I was really seeing and hearing. I won’t lie, not knowing the source of all the weird noises made me a little paranoid.
It wasn’t until after the album finished that my shoulders relaxed, and my breathing became more regular and I leaned back into my seat and got comfortable again.
While this may not have been the best way, either physically or mentally to listen to an album, it was ultimately an incredible experience I will always remember, and hope to never repeat.